Unfortunately, books have been burned all across the world, by regimes from the classical times to today. The list below was constructed in a broad, un-ranked order on the not-at-all scientific basis of influence and interest. Sadly, it includes but a smattering of the occasions in which books have met fire.
After pledging to burn the Koran on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Christian fundamentalist preacher Terry Jones caused a worldwide sensation. Twenty people were killed as a result of the upheavals that followed, and political leaders from all sides appealed to stop them. Jones never completed his public torching, but he did burn some copies of the book in his church’s sanctuary the following year.
The Works of Helen Keller
Helen Keller is correct. The Story of My Life, as well as The World I Live In and Out of the Dark, are included here.
As she has been exalted to sainthood, many people have forgotten that Keller was a vigorous advocate for social and economic equality. For this reason, she was burned in 1933 along with a number of other books, serving as a powerful protest to Nazi views on disabled people. While Joseph Goebbels proclaimed a new German age, her writings were burned along with those of dozens of other writers. But one of the things that has lasted the longest is Keller’s rebuke:
If you think you can kill ideas, you’ve learned nothing from history. Tyrants have tried to accomplish it many times before, but their ideals have risen up and destroyed them.
Even if you burn all of my books and the books of Europe’s greatest minds, the ideas they contain will continue to inspire new generations of thinkers.
The Etrusca Disciplina
Despite their final defeat and absorption by the Romans, the Etruscans, a Northern Italian civilisation, exerted a significant impact on Roman society. The ancient religious and divinatory texts known as the Etruscan Disciplina were destroyed in the 5th century A.D. during a religious fanaticism uprising. Many other important pagan manuscripts perished in the conflagration of the late Roman Empire at the same time, leaving a significant hole in our knowledge of ancient history.
The Histories of the Aztecs
It was determined by the Aztec Emperor Izcoatl at that time that all people should not view the murals. All of Aztec history up to that point was destroyed in a fire.
As is typical of tyrants, Izcoatl sought to rewrite history by erasing any evidence that stood in the way of his preferred version of events. As a result of the destruction of the Aztec works by the Spanish, a great deal of knowledge about an important civilisation was lost forever. The world also lost out.
The Poems of Sappho
As the Greeks referred to her as “the 10th muse,” Sappho wrote works that were more concerned with the inner lives of individuals as they struggled with the challenges of love, life, and the world. Despite the fact that Sappho’s fragments have inspired poets for ages, ancient academics only have access to a tiny fraction of the nine volumes she wrote.
Why? There are other ways to get rid of books besides burning them. Sappho’s works were copied less frequently by the Romans than by the Greeks, because the Romans were afraid of independent female literary minds. Their supply was further diminished by an accident of history: the difficulty of the dialect she wrote in.
Two church-ordered burnings (Sappho wrote hymns honoring pagan deities) in the 3rd and 10th centuries A.D. were the final nail in the coffin. Her work continues to surface, and there is yet hope for a literary miracle—a mostly complete set—to occur.
Intimate libraries in Timbuktu were quickly taken over by Islamist militants late last year. It is a history of West Africa replete with mythology and anecdotes, as well as the most important accounts of the region’s once-mighty civilizations. However, to the radicals, it and other old books were just heretical kindling for their cause.
Even though some books were lost, most were salvaged by locals who risked their lives to protect their culture from fanatics. Fortunately, this story has a fairly pleasant ending.
The Woman Rebel and “Family Limitation”
Margaret Sanger’s dramatic battle with Congressman Anthony Comstock over Sanger’s instructive publications helped overturn the stringent censorship laws that had dominated the late 19th century. The Woman Rebel newspaper and the pamphlet “Family Limitation” were designed by Sanger to be a direct challenge to the Comstock Act, which prohibited the mailing of “obscene” literature. She was indicted and finally her husband was arrested thanks to Comstock’s cooperation. Comstock’s regular method was to destroy the copies of both Sanger’s publications that had been seized.
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, led by Comstock, didn’t hide their hatred of their enemies behind platitudes. Society’s seal included a police officer putting a man into prison and a top hat-wearing book burner.
After her husband was sentenced to 30 days in prison, Sanger was able to win her case in court, which led to a gradual erosion of censorship laws.
Book burnings of religious writings have occurred throughout history, but the Jewish holy scriptures have suffered a disproportionate number of attacks. The emperors of Hellenistic Greece, Rome, medieval tyrants (both Christian and Muslim), fascists of the twentieth century, and everyone in between have set fire to them. It’s a good thing that Judaism places such a high value on study and protecting the written word.
Jan Hus’ De Ecclesia
An unpopular theologian in his time was Hus of Hus, a Czech theologian who advocated for a more open church and an egalitarian view of Christianity. Though based on the English separatist John Wycliffe’s De Ecclesia, it proved to be a blazing piece of literature in the oppressive circumstances at the time. If Hus was burnt with his works on top of him, it’s not clear what happened to the rest of them. In any case, the officials in charge undoubtedly believed that was the end of the matter.
There was a misunderstanding between us. Peasants and city dwellers both took part in the Defenestration of Prague, which saw the officials slaughtered. To defeat the five Crusades sent against them, the Hussites used early guns and innovative tactics. Even though the heretics’ rebellion was eventually crushed by internal strife, the Church was forced to negotiate a settlement rather than execute and burn their writings for the first time in centuries.
The Church’s power to simply slaughter its ideological opponents and stifle their views was permanently undermined as a result of Hus and his adherents. The easing of the Inquisition’s grip over Europe coincided with the Renaissance. When Martin Luther, a small-time German priest, became irrational, a gun-shy church burnt his writings but allowed him to live. After then, things began to shift quickly.
Analects of Confucius
It’s hard to top Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s brutally named burning of books and burial of intellectuals when he unified China for sheer impact on Western viewers. Among all human ideologies, the Legalist philosophy that guides his regime is one of the most totalitarian. To put an end to one of history’s most fascinating intellectual periods and destroy nearly every publication that wasn’t a technical manual, the Hundred Schools of Thought’s sway was snuffed out.
Confucianism, Taoism and other traditions that survived the crackdown were able to do so for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important was that their writings were able to withstand the pressure the best. If Confucianism and Mohism, for example, were wiped out, the history of billions of Asians might be very different today.
The Works of Theodore Dreiser
Theodore Dreiser’s name may not evoke the same level of fear in modern society as it once did, and Indiana may no longer be considered a hotbed of right-wing fanaticism, but Dreiser’s brutal naturalism in works like Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy made him a target back in 1935. The trustees of a Warsaw library, located near the home of evangelist Billy Sunday, ordered the destruction of all copies of Dreiser’s work.
Unfortunately, this was not the town’s final brush with book burning. During the conservative backlash of the late 1970s, the student newspaper was shut down, instructors were terminated, and copies of incendiary literature were set ablaze in parking lots. Although the town fathers were upset by Dreiser’s and the other authors’ works, they nonetheless have a lasting impact on the literary world today.
All of these book burnings, no matter where or when they occurred, did not work. There will always be fresh and hazardous ideas to confront censors, no matter how much damage they have done. Since the invention of the printing press and the widespread use of the Internet, we have devised ever more sophisticated means of preserving and disseminating knowledge.